The impatience of our age does not seem to be making us happier. Rarely do you see the faces of those who constantly tap out their addiction on glowing screens glow with equal ardour. Generally their faces are harassed and tense, anxious as the little red message count rises, so engrossed in their virtual world that the real world of, say, families and children becomes an obstacle met with frustration. Parents get angry with their children for interrupting the non-stop screen time, then wonder why the little ones grow up incapable of meaningful relationships or even basic social interaction.
Patience is certainly not my forte (as my wife will tell you). It is what twenty-somethings call a ‘first world problem,’ but much of it is to do with the sheer range of choices available in almost every aspect of life. Which TV streaming service should I choose, which internet provider, which train company for my upcoming trip, which supermarket for dinner? There are those who would say that these are nice problems to have. Yet under the illusion that choice equals freedom, we can end up trapped in a cycle of administrating our lives rather than living them.
How does Lent address this? By encouraging us to fast. This is an ancient discipline common to many religions, which might cause confusion. So, before we can be clear about what it means, let us consider for a moment what it absolutely does not mean.
Fasting does not mean earning God’s favour by doing a good deed, even when we give the money we save by fasting as alms to charity. Nor does it mean giving up on fatty foods so that we can get bikini-ready for summer.
In fact, it means quite the opposite. Fasting is a way of removing the attachments we have to things which get in the way of our relationship with God. If we are fasting for any other reason than to get closer to God, then we are merely perpetuating the capital sin of idolatry: putting something of creation in the creator’s proper place.
Rather, fasting is about entering the suffering of Christ. For many religions, suffering is something to be overcome, an undesirable necessity. This is where we find Christianity’s USP - and not a very marketable one. For Christians, suffering has a purpose, and the path to wisdom is found by entering that suffering. Some enter it deeply, such as the monastics who give up all worldly goods to live in solidarity with the poor, or the many Christians who give up their time and money as volunteers to share and ease the suffering of others. We too can enter it by giving up something which we love but which risks distracting our hearts and minds from union with God.
So ask yourself this Lent, what is it that draws me away from God? Away from inner peace? Away from the love of my friends and family? It may be chocolate or alcohol, I suppose: but perhaps there is some more significant attachment to remove. And when it is removed, perhaps you will find more time and energy to spend with God (in prayer) and with neighbour (in love).
I can promise this: the more honest the penance, the greater the joy of forgiveness; the greater the fasting, the greater the joy of Eastertide when it comes.